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is Digital Content Editor at CMAJ (she is also a trained medical illustrator)

Perhaps you’re familiar with the profession, but many are not. Medical illustrators are educated in human anatomy and life sciences and have the skills and technical training to communicate scientific concepts in a visual way. They create animations, illustrations, 3D medical models, virtual simulations, medical games, interactive educational modules, and more. There is one accredited program in Canada, , at the University of Toronto (my alma mater).

Last week, I attended the 69th annual in Rochester, MN, home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic. Rochester is a tiny town but it boasts an impressive variety of leaders and experts in diverse fields. Our group of 400+ attendees got to hear from some of them, as well as other awe-inspiring speakers from around the globe.

There were so many great talks and I wish I could address them all but, alas, here’s a quick flyby:

, pediatric surgeon at Mayo Clinic, gave a poignant and emotional talk about the successful separation of conjoined twins Abbigail and Isabelle Carlsen, which took place back in 2006. He explained that multiple imaging techniques ultimately still fell short in detailing the intricacies of the girls’ anatomical abnormalities (such as a common duodenum, and a messy network of bile ducts) in a way that was clear enough for the surgical team to feel confident with performing the operation. Medical illustrator was asked to step in and worked closely with pediatric radiologist to provide a series of extremely accurate illustrations of the twins’ anatomy (see one sample below). These provided a crucial surgical planning tool for the team of 70+ people who separated the twins. The poster-sized print-outs were then used as reference on the day of the surgery. “Medical illustrators saved the lives of two girls”, said Dr. Moir.

Mayo Clinic conjoined twins' illustration

Again on the theme of medical planning tools, Mayo Clinic pediatric neurosurgeon, , explained a new approach used for surgical treatment of craniosynostosis (the abnormal fusion of one or more bones of the skull in infancy). A medical 3D animator (whose name I unfortunately did not catch), uses CT scan information from a child’s malformed skull, recreates it in 3D software, and essentially provides a virtual platform in which surgeons can break down the top portion of the skull into pieces - think puzzle pieces - and reconfigure the skull into a more natural shape. They then map out the new skull pieces with lettered codes on the child's skull and perform the operation. Their research on the technique has found it yields a better shape result with a single, shorter operation. Win, win. More details .

, Director of Social Media for Mayo Clinic, shared his insights on the importance of being out there (here?) in the world of #socialmedia. He said the networking that happens on social platforms is what drove Mayo to the top, despite it being in a small city. And with its relatively minimal cost, the return on investment for being involved in social networking has the potential to be quite large.

In their talks, MK Czerwiec (aka ) and Johns Hopkins medical illustrator and instructor , shared with us the power of comics in medicine. Although they have been in the field for a long time, graphic novels and comics are now being recognized as an important and effective modality for knowledge transmission, especially for taboo or touchy subjects (e.g. ), the younger crowd (e.g. asthma education, ), or even for global topics such as a , published by the CDC. Comic Nurse MK Czerwiec, who is in fact a nurse, now does workshops with medical students to unleash their inner graphic art talent. For more on graphics in medicine, check out .

Avid Twitter user , Art Director of Information Graphics at Scientific American, shared her insights on the difficulties of visualizing complex scientific information for both an educated lay audience and an expert audience within the same graphic. Not an easy task but she always finds beautiful solutions. She also challenged us to , an organ that may be better understood as a functional map rather than an anatomical one. See the for more information.

There is a fascinating community of science+art lovers on the Internet. Some of the insiders helped us explore this world. There was , social media guru, talented artist, and blogger for the Scientific American blog , a lovely fellow with an under-appreciated sense of humour. There was also , founder and editor-in-chief of online magazine , who seems to know everything about science-based art. Follow , on Twitter and check out for more.

A handful of fine artists shared with us how they have discovered a love for anatomy and medicine and garnered attention along the way. There was , of the Tissue Series fame, who recreates anatomical cross sections entirely out of rolled-up narrow strips of paper (a technique called quilling). Artist uses liquid latex and markers to dissect with a paintbrush directly on human subjects, giving us a dramatic peek inside (see below).

Then, if all that wasn't enough, our minds were blown by a couple of speakers who have worked with the likes of National Geographic, BBC, Discovery Channel and, oh ya, George Lucas. The first was , paleo-artist, who, as he put it best, "likes to make heads". In his small NY City home studio, he creates anatomically correct forensic reconstructions of fossil hominids, both in sculpture and as paintings or murals. This video pretty much sums up the greatness that is Viktor Deak.

The second mind-blowing presenter was , who gave a few talks and workshops. Andrew started out as a working with the greats in California and while doing so he became obsessed with sculpting human anatomy. He eventually left Hollywood (!) in order to dedicate himself to teaching and his anatomical modelling company. His Sculpting for Surgeons class teaches cosmetic and plastic surgeons to pay attention to the aesthetics and proportions of anatomy as well as its function. "Be addicted to the human form," he said, "in order to recreate its beauty."